YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The Incredible Shrinking Course Load at Pricey UC : Education: With students having to stay in school longer to get degrees, some call for professors to teach more. But that's not where the money is.

March 22, 1992|David Glidden | David Glidden teaches philosophy at UC Riverside

RIVERSIDE — At the University of California, student costs are soaring, with another major fee increase scheduled for next year. Elizabeth Hill, the legislative analyst, suggests UC faculty reciprocate by teaching six courses a year, instead of the current five. Her premise is charmingly naive. The UC teaching load is less than she imagines. Even five courses in a year would not be bad.

During the last 10 years, the faculty course load has been falling. Humanists and social scientists who once taught five courses in a school year now teach four. Lab scientists are teaching less than that.

With fewer courses being taught, class size is growing. Small seminars are disappearing. Teaching assistants are carrying more of the burden of instruction. Courses are so often closed, many undergraduates find themselves shut out of courses required for their major. Earning a degree can take five years, at ever higher fees. The squeeze is now affecting not only larger campuses like UCLA or Berkeley but also smaller ones, like Santa Cruz and Santa Barbara.

Still, UC President David Gardner is outraged at Hill's suggestion, calling it the most destructive recommendation that has yet been made. Instead, he promises to relieve pressures in the classroom by offering undergraduates more courses, seminars and sections, particularly in the freshman and sophomore years. The details will be left to campuses to implement, without allowing them to augment the size of faculties. Gardner promises a miracle, but it seems more like pulling rabbits out of hats.

After all is said and done, faculty determine teaching loads, department by department. They decide which courses are needed for the major; they decide how much to teach. Will faculty increase their teaching load to service undergraduates? It's not in the faculty's self-interest.

Across the nation, teaching loads have been declining at research universities, while salaries have been rising. Whenever universities like Princeton lower teaching loads, others quickly follow suit. To be competitive, the course load shrinks across-the-board. Faculty teaching four courses in a year are perceived as having better jobs than faculty teaching six. The fewer courses taught, the greater the prestige. The explanation for this peculiar sort of competition always is the same: Requisites of research require lower teaching loads. The publication of research is what faculty are paid for. Teaching is a chore.

Research is not the same as publication. Confusing the two is a pervasive fallacy, identifying process with the product. Long-term research is of real value. But publication drives research these days. Better research never was dependent on teaching fewer classes. Only the quantity of publication is.

Faculty advancements and promotions at research universities are based on quantity of publication more than quality of research. Since most faculty don't have the time to assess specialized research in areas they themselves know little of, quantity of publications reigns supreme. Faculty cannot satiate the compelling need to write more papers without meeting fewer classes. So the pressure mounts: teach less, not more.

This desktop factory atmosphere has not improved the quality of life for the scholar or the student. The joy of teaching and of reading dwindles, once demands are made to write more books and articles. To publish, say, two books or 30 articles within the course of two academic years is more a sign of compulsion than accomplishment. But the most prolific faculty are the ones most highly paid.

Faculty personnel committees could shift their focus on research entirely to quality. They might, for example, require that a professor submit only a single representative publication as the basis for reviewing his research. Personnel committees might then have the time to evaluate it. With quality the sole arbiter of merit, the false dilemma between teaching and research disappears. Various educators have suggested this approach, but faculty are reluctant to be measured by their insight rather than the length of their bibliography.

Gardner and Hill are each offering pie-in-the-sky proposals. Genuine reform at UC will only come at the departmental level, on each campus, one-by-one. There is much that can be done. In a more genuinely academic climate, all UC philosophers or political scientists, for example, would average the same amount of courses, whether it be Davis, San Diego or Riverside. Teaching loads should be uniform within departments, too, not subject to negotiation in recruiting faculty, as often happens. The policy of awarding course relief for administrative chores, such as editing a journal or serving on committees, ought to be curtailed.

Honors courses, freshman seminars, interdisciplinary surveys and smaller classes will make a qualitative difference when faculty are rewarded for preparing them. Faculty also ought to reconsider what they require for a major, with the aim of graduating students within four years again. Too many required courses serve the interest of producing publications, not educating undergrads.

Sometimes, public bureaucracies do reform themselves. Other times, they merely paper over problems to placate the public. UC faculty might be tempted to cook the books and give credit to themselves for teaching more by counting phantom courses, which are really administrative chores disguised, such as supervising teaching assistants. This is already happening. So, it remains to be seen whether the faculty will bring about real reforms and increase their teaching load, or whether it will be another case of smoke and mirrors, in keeping with the bush-league politics of the '90s.

Los Angeles Times Articles